Mary Buikema says her organization is half way to its goal to build or rehab 200 homes in two years on Grand Rapids’ west side. Photo by Michael Buck
Mary Buikema knows owning a house can be a transformational experience for a family, which is why she is so passionate about her job at Habitat for Humanity of Kent County.
Buikema said home ownership adds stability, allowing a family to connect with their neighbors and community in ways the transient nature of renting often does not.
“We find families that rent move often,” Buikema explained. “It’s hard for them to invest in their education and friendships and play a significant role in their church or community if they have to move all the time.
“Affordable home ownership allows families to budget and work and plan for how they can address the other areas of their lives.”
Before coming to Habitat for Humanity five years ago, Buikema was in a very different part of the home-building business.
She spent 15 years with BDR Executive Custom Homes helping some of the area’s most affluent families build magnificent high-end homes.
One of her clients at BDR was an attorney from Chicago. On a return flight from North Carolina where he and Buikema had gone to shop for furniture for his new home, he told her he thought it was important for her to make a career change. Specifically, he said he thought she should be working with a Christian nonprofit.
In addition to her relationship-building skills, the client had noticed that Buikema was not intimidated by people’s wealth and wasn’t afraid to develop relationships with people from a variety of backgrounds.
Buikema said the conversation was life changing.
She began exploring the nonprofit sector in Grand Rapids, meeting with various people to learn more about opportunities — and eventually applying for a position at Habitat for Humanity.
In 2010, Buikema joined Habitat as executive director.
She described the organization during that period as undergoing a major overhaul.
Habitat had been building one home at a time at various locations in Kent County. The model provided a very limited scope for what could be accomplished.
Additionally, the country was embroiled in one of the worst economic downturns in its history. It was also in the midst of a foreclosure crisis.
The national Habitat for Humanity organization was beginning to put an emphasis on neighborhood revitalization, and the Kent County affiliate had just been awarded a neighborhood stabilization grant, which required a very different approach to building.
“We really changed the model of our building process,” Buikema said.
As the largest of 73 affiliates in Michigan, Habitat for Humanity of Kent County became part of a small group of affiliates nationwide to begin strategizing around neighborhood stabilization and revitalization.
That included buying foreclosed properties and serving low-income homeowners through rehab services to their houses, such as painting the exterior, landscaping and other cosmetic work.
“Part of the shift into neighborhood revitalization is we started to reach out to families that already owned their own homes, which was a huge shift in our workload. It totally increased the amount of impact we could have in a community,” Buikema said.
Habitat of Kent County also committed to only building LEED-certified homes, another big change to its model.
“So we were not only buying foreclosed homes, we were renovating to LEED and then selling them to low-income families who will hold that mortgage for up to 30 years,” Buikema said.
“The stability of that, in a neighborhood that has declined, is really transformational.”
She noted the utility savings a LEED-certified home provides can be as much as $1,000 per year, or $30,000 throughout the course of the mortgage.
The new model drastically increased Habitat’s capacity to serve families. As a result, in 2013, the organization embarked on its Building Blocks campaign. The goal of the campaign is to build or rehab 200 homes in two years in five west-side Grand Rapids neighborhoods.
The $5 million campaign is coming close to meeting its goal, Buikema said.
“We are nearly half way there,” she said. “We hope to do 20 houses each year and 80 homeowner-occupied services.”
The new approach to community stabilization has earned Habitat a seat at the economic development table across the county.
“We have become leaders in the community with a focus on permanent housing and neighborhood sustainability,” Buikema said.
“We’ve become key players in strengthening core neighborhoods in our city, so even for-profit investors can come in and invest and see a return. It’s really a two-way street. We are at the table with our for-profit partners and are invited to be there.”
Habitat For Humanity of Kent County has a 95 percent success rate with its home ownership program. “Better than any bank in the country,” Buikema pointed out.
“We have very few people that can’t make it. We have a lot of partners in the community that support our families if they run into a hiccup. Because we own the mortgage, we have the ability to modify those terms any time we see fit.”
Buikema pointed out having a variety of housing types is vital to the community: from homeownership to quality rental properties to transitional housing options.
“We really want to see low-income housing remain a stable and integral part of our urban core,” she said.
To keep it all going, philanthropy is vital, and Buikema said Habitat has received a tremendous amount of support from the donor community.
The Kent County organization also operates three Habitat Restores, which sell gently used and new building materials.
“We repurpose a lot of the materials we take out of the houses — we recycle. We are keeping a lot of waste out of the landfills and we offer low-cost building materials to the community,” Buikema said.
Mortgages provide another important source of revenue. Buikema said the organization holds 350 mortgages currently.
Right now she and her staff are engaged in strategizing for 2016, 2017 and 2018.
“We are going to continue our work on the west side,” she said. “We have a neighborhood-specific plan going through right now in Roosevelt Park, on Rumsey Street just off Grandville Avenue.
“It’s a huge collaboration. We own almost the entire block. We are acquiring a tremendous amount of property right now and we are engaging the neighbors and the community to identify what is going to go into the neighborhood. It’s not going to just be housing. There is going to be a community center and other things beneficial to the community. We will do the housing part of it.”
She said it will be a multimillion dollar project that will require numerous community partnerships.
Buikema also has plans to open a fourth Habitat Restore, which would most likely be located on the southeast side of the city.
The organization is also working to expand its veteran-focused programs and its Women Build program.
When Buikema reflected on the past five years, she said it has completely changed her life. She noted she has downsized significantly as a result of her work with Habitat.
“I’ve really changed my own life in the past five years. I really am committed to living a simple life,” she said. “I’ve been very inspired by the families we serve that you can have tremendous success in your life with very little.
“I live in a 500-square-foot studio apartment. I’m a minimalist. I find it liberating, and it’s a huge part of who I am.”